Mould, Bob (Contemporary Musicians)
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
An artist renowned for intensely introspective lyrics and explosively loud guitar playing, Bob Mould has quietly established himself as an icon of the alternative rock movement whose body of work continues to inspire countless other bands. As a cofounding member of the thrash band Hüsker Dü for much of the 1980s, Mould blazed a sonic trail that volume-obsessed young guitarists still follow.
Along with underground colleagues the Replacements and R.E.M., Hüsker Dü helped to lead the rebirth of American guitar rock in the early 1980s. All three bands enjoyed tremendous popularity with the college radio crowd in the mid-1980s, but unlike R.E.M., which rode its college popularity crest to commercial success in the latter half of the decade, Hüsker Dü self-destructed in 1988, with the Replacements doing the same a couple years later. After the breakup Mould went solo, releasing two albums, 1989's reflective Workbook, and 1990's searing Black Sheets of Rain. In 1992, Mould returned to the security of a band, debuting his new group, Sugar, on the LP Copper Blue.
Mould was born in Malone, New York, a farming community near Lake Placid. His parents ran a mom-and-pop grocery store, where he worked, learning the value of a dollar and developing the business skills that would later enable him to take over his own management duties. In a 1989 promotional interview with Virgin Records, Mould said he learned to love music at an early age, thanks largely to his father's extensive collection of old jukebox singles, and used to memorize record labels like other kids memorized baseball card statistics. Though Mould didn't learn the guitar till the age of sixteen, he'd begun writing songs when he was nine. "I even had a name for my publishing company," he said. "But I forget what it was."
Set Land Speed Records With Hüsker Dü
Mould attended college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Still musically inclined, he became enamored with the early punk sounds of the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, the New York Dolls, and, particularly, the Buzzcocks. He teamed up with another Buzzcocks fan, drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton to form Hüsker Dü in 1979. The band quickly gained local attention in Minneapolis as one of the town's loudest, fastest underground bands.
Land Speed Record, Hüsker Dü's 1981 debut on the independent label SST Records, captured the band's raw power and sheer velocity in 17 songs in 26 minutes. Many speed metal/thrash bands were Hüsker Dü contemporaries in the early 1980s, and still more arrived closely on the trio's heels, but few had material to match the emotional wallop of Hüsker Dü's work. "Neither Mould nor Hart, the band's principal songwriters," attested David Fricke in Rolling Stone, "settled for cheap punk sentiment: fhe cops, society sucks. Instead, they wrote narratives and meditations on real life and real love, little pleasures and daily pain."
The band's creative peak came with 1984's concept album Zen Arcade. The album "picked hardcore punk up out of its monotonous rut and drop-kicked it into the future," said Rolling Stone. "Structurally, Zen Arcade is defiantly anti-punk double album with an operatic narrative and unorthodox segments of acoustic folk, backward tape effects and psychedelicized guitar a la the Beatles' White Album."
Recorded in 85 hours at a total cost of $4,000, the album tells the story of a teenaged computer hacker from a broken home who dreams about suicide after his girlfriend's fatal overdose. Instead, he ends up institutionalized and later meets the head of a computer firm who hires him to design video games. Mould told Rolling Stone that the story contained some autobiographical elements. "Some of us are from broken homes, some of us have had friends die," he said. "I don't think that's anything new."
Stardom and Self-Destruction
After two SST follow-ups, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig, Hüsker Dü signed with Warner Bros. Records and released its major-label debut in 1986, Candy Apple Grey, a painstaking look at life through the eyes of a number of troubled characters. The Wilson Library Bulletin described the LP as "depicting the typical emotional trajectory of the average, anonymous, moody adolescent as a series of jangled screeches on the electric guitar," telling of characters "balanced on a seesaw of elation and despair, with elation being, more precisely, just the absence of despair." Mould's contributions to the album included a pair of quiet but gut-wrenching songs, "Hardly Getting Over It" and "Too Far Down."
By the time Hüsker Dü hit the road to support its 1987 follow-up, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, traditional rock and roll demons, drug use and musical dissension, were beginning to take their toll. On the eve of the U.S. tour, the band's manager, David Savoy, committed suicide. Subsequent shows on the tour proved erratic. Hart's purported heroin use was wreaking havoc within the band and Mould felt increasingly constrained by Hüsker Dü's thunderous sound, which he characterized as claustrophobic. "On January 25, 1988," Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone, "Hüsker Duhe Minneapolis trio of punk idealists whose transformation of standard-issue thrash into a 3-D roar of power and eloquence brought them unprecedented mainstream recognitionroke up."
Telling Norton and Hart he was leaving Hüsker Dü, Mould related to one reporter, was "the hardest thing I ever had to do. I will remember that day for the rest of my life. The band was like a train speeding uphill and downhill, and nobody could get near it or they'd get run over. Certain people would try to be the conductor and certain people would pull the brakes. And nobody could get on or off. When it finally hit down in that valley and slowed down, Bob jumped off. Bob got off the train .. . and it's the best thing I ever did."
Mould has said he left Hüsker Dü for the safety and sanity of all involved, but expressed no regrets about being a part of the groundbreaking outfit. "Some hateful stuff went on, some wonderful stuff went on," he said in 1989. "But it's over and all that remains are the records. For me personally, it's time to let the music do the talking. And that's what this record is all about," he said of his first solo effort, Workbook, an introspective masterpiece that he used as a vehicle to purge his spirit of Hüsker Dü's emotional baggage.
Worked to Exorcise Demons of Spirit
After spending much of 1988 cloistered away on his farm in Minnesota, Mould emerged with a crop of songs that marked a pleasant departure from the roar of Hüsker Dü. His trademark intensity still intact, Mould transferred his rage and self-doubt to the acoustic guitar, which laid a warm foundation for most of Workbook, accompanied by a rich instrumental mix. Some cuts, like the bouncy pop tune "See a Little Light" and the Hüske like power cut "Whichever Way the Wind Blows," prove exceptions, but for the most part Workbook documents in an intensely personal fashion the perils of Mould's transition from a kid in a garage band to a man setting out on his own against the world's harsh realities. Stereo Review said the album contained "songs to exorcise poisonous feelings along with songs of cautious celebration and reawakening." Rolling Stone declared that Workbook produced "a genuine feeling of catharsis... by Mould's one-two punch of confessional honesty and guitar euphoria."
Workbook marked a musical change for Mould right from the opening chords of the lilting instrumental "Sunspots." "The album features acoustic guitars, electric guitars at relatively sensible volumes, a cello, and a fighting chance to hear what Bob Mould's voice sounds liketrong, full, agile, with a hard cutting edge," described Newsweek.
Mould toured to support the album with Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone and Golden Palominos drummer Anton Fier. The three reformed in the studio in 1990 to record Mould's second solo outing, Black Sheets of Rain, a hard-driving companion to its softer predecessor. Back in a rock trio format, Mould vented his frustration at economic and environmental threats to man's well-being.
The guitar-heavy and feedback-laden album "contains none of Workbook's pensive acoustic eloquence or diligent guitar orchestration," said Rolling Stone. "Black Sheets of Rain is nothing more, or less, than a long, loud howl of painlinding anger, unremitting loveache, debilitating lonelinessroadcast from power trio hell... this is the kind of high-volume torment and emotional open-heart surgery that hurts so good."
Making the album and doing the subsequent tour allowed Mould to be in control and run the musical show as he saw fit role that in the end he didn't relish. "With those guys the lines were definitely drawn," Mould told Pulse!, "mostly by themhis is your thing, we're hired guns, let's keep it that way.' I wanted to give it a band name .. . do things with it as a band."
Reopened Umbrella of Trio
In 1992 Mould recruited bassist David Barbe of the Georgia-based band Mercyland, and drummer Malcolm Travis from the Boston group Zulus. Together they formed Sugar, a power trio that rivaled the intensity and drive of the best alternative bands. The release of Sugar's debut album, Copper Blue, met with tremendous critical acclaim. The album was an electrifying fusion of melody and noise, resulting in a newer, more confident, accessible sound that still echoed with Mould's dark and brooding cynicism.
Reviewers were lavish in their praise of Copper Blue. Spin called the album "effective proof of Mould's continuing vitality," and Rolling Stone proclaimed it to be "as thundering as it is tuneful." Even mainstream People declared it "altogether satisfying." For weeks Copper Blue dominated the charts on college and alternative radio stations across the country, edging out more established artists like Sonic Youth, Suzanne Vega, Morrissey, and the Ramones. It was voted album of the year by the New Musical Express and was on the Top Ten list of every significant music publication, including Billboard.
The trio's second release, Beaster, was conceived as a theme album bizarre, biblical epic about martyrs and traitors. Despite public anticipation and heavy promotion by Rykodisc, the album sold poorly. A few reviewers found it to their liking, but most agreed it was a disappointing follow-up to its predecessor. Critics in general gave Beaster the cold shoulder, dismissing it as unfocused and relentlessly chaotic. Even Mould didn't want to discuss it, explaining to Details magazine, "I don't want to ruin it for myself. The record still really upsets me when I hear it, and I like that."
Future plans for Sugar include a 1993 summer tour of Japan, though Mould, increasingly plagued by what he considers to be work-related ailments, expressed doubts about lasting the season. "My voice is virtually gone," he confessed to New Musical Express, "I've had polyps and nodules in my throat for years and now they're constantly aggravated. My ears are going. Arthritis runs in my family and. .. I feel I'm getting it in all of my joints from the way I play. I don't know how [much longer] I'll be able to play on the road."
Though he's assaulted them with sonic pyrotechnics and snarled his throat-maiming vocals at them regularly over the years, Mould has developed an honest rapport with his fans. He speaks wistfully of having an audience that's grown with him. "We may have met people in 1981 when they were one of eight people who came to see us, and now we see them and they're a foot taller and pre-law or pre-med, where before they were on skateboards smashing windows or something," Mould told Down Beat in 1987. "I like that; it's really cool. In some degree you can almost see the changes in yourself through other people."
The honesty of his live performances draws his audience closer to him, he believes. When he's in a bad mood, he told Musician, his performance may reflect that. "People seem to have very rigid lives, sitting in front of computers. I would hope that people abandon that shit when they come see me. Check it at the door. Bring your soul with you. That's the cool thing about live music've got you now, and it's not necessarily going to be entertaining. It's going to change again, get away from visuals, and there are going to be a lot of casualties. "
Land Speed Record, SST, 1981.
Metal Circus, SST, 1982.
Zen Arcade, SST, 1984.
New Day Rising, SST, 1985.
Flip Your Wig, SST, 1985.
Candy Apple Grey, Warner Bros., 1986.
Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Warner Bros., 1987.
Workbook, Virgin, 1989.
Black Sheets of Rain, Virgin, 1990.
(Contributor) No Alternative, Arista, 1993.
Copper Blue, Rykodisc, 1992.
Beaster, Rykodisc, 1993.
(Contributors) Born to Choose, Rykodisc, 1993.
Down Beat, April 1987.
Entertainment Weekly, September 4, 1992; June 6, 1993.
Guitar Player, October 1992.
High Fidelity, August 1986.
Musician, February 1992; October 1992.
Newsweek, June 19, 1989.
Pulse!, October 1992.
Reflex, Issue 29.
Rolling Stone. May 18.1989; June 15, 1989; November 16, 1989; December 14, 1989; September 20, 1990; August 20, 1992; October 29, 1992; January 7, 1993.
Spin, May 1992; November 1992.
Stereo Review, September 1989; November 1990.
Wilson Library Bulletin, October 1986.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Virgin Records promotional interview, 1989, and Rykodisc press materials, 1993.